The low-key warnings to limit the technology came after the firm used Zoom to hold a high-profile meeting in late March, a decision that was defended at the time as necessary in “unprecedented circumstances”.
Parliament was informed last week by the National Cyber Security Center, part of the intelligence agency GCHQ, that Zoom should only be used for public affairs.
A parliamentary source said those involved were informed that Zoom should not be used for closed cases and that there was an explicit warning from the NCSC “not to use it to talk about things detrimental to the interests of China” .
However, the warning was only shown to those directly involved in the negotiations, and was not disseminated more widely to deputies, including members of foreign commissions or other special committees who might want to investigate inquiries. issues related to China.
Senior parliamentary figures have also learned that Zoom can be used safely for public affairs, and this technology was used this week in debates in the House of Commons, including during Prime Minister’s questions.
Zoom exploded in popularity during the lockdown of the coronavirus as a communication tool for social and business purposes, and is now used worldwide by approximately 300 million people daily. The company’s success has prompted quick responses from competitors such as Facebook, which announced a new feature on Friday that allows up to 50 people to join a Messenger video chat.
The Citizen Lab, a digital communications laboratory based at the University of Toronto, warned in early April of potential security risks. The security keys, which are supposed to encrypt conversations “in some cases, are given to participants of a Zoom meeting via servers in China,” he said in a special report released earlier this month.
Zoom said the traffic was routed through China in error. However, the government of Taiwan – a country not recognized by China – announced earlier this month that it would ban the use of “such as Zoom” products in the event of security concerns.
The Citizen Lab said the popularity of the technology made it a “priority for many governments” and would make “Zoom a high priority target for gathering intelligence on signals and targeted intrusion operations.”
Zoom is based in Silicon Valley, California, but has three companies in China that develop its software. The Citizen Lab said the structure had helped the company reduce development costs, but added that “this arrangement could make Zoom susceptible to pressure from Chinese authorities.”
In response, Zoom sought to tighten its security, releasing the new version 5 of its app with stronger encryption and privacy controls and introducing controls to prevent “Zoombombing” where people hacked meetings – such as Alcoholics Anonymous sessions – to disrupt them. .
A Whitehall source said that an alert about Zoom had been distributed to government departments, which were asked to send it to the quangos, due to concerns about China’s ability to listen.
But they complained that the warning was not always taken seriously enough in parts of Whitehall, although Zoom is currently allowed for meetings where no confidential matters are discussed.
A government spokesperson said “Zoom is used for unclassified government communications in unprecedented circumstances”, but added: “Other services are in place for more sensitive communications.”
The availability of these more secure services has been increased to meet the demand for more public servants to work remotely, the spokesman added.
Zoom said his technology is used by banks, universities and other government agencies around the world. He added that “the routing problems described in the Citizen Lab research were a temporary problem caused when Zoom failed to fully implement its usual best practices for geo-fencing.” These have been fixed, he said, and customers who pay to use Zoom can customize the location of the traffic.
The software company said that the software developers in China who work as the company’s subcontractors were “largely managed by our team of engineers in the United States” and said that they had no no access to the Zoom development environment in the United States.
But a second Citizen Lab report of April 8 – five days after the first – stated that even if Zoom had taken steps to improve its security, “we do not recommend using Zoom in cases where high privacy and confidentiality are required “Including for” governments concerned about espionage “.
In response to Zoom’s success, Facebook announced Friday the launch of Messenger Rooms, a new feature for the company’s Messenger app that allows up to 50 people to join a group chat – even if they haven’t no Facebook account, an unusual move for the company that mirrors Zoom’s own attempts to prioritize usability.
The social network also doubled the number of people who can join an encrypted WhatsApp video call from four to eight, and announced a series of updates to Facebook Live, which allows users to stream to many viewers at once.
According to Stan Chudnovsky, vice president of Messenger, video calls to Messenger and WhatsApp more than doubled in the areas most affected by Covid-19, and views of Facebook Live and Instagram Live videos increased significantly in March.